No evidence retention law in murder cases exists in Idaho

Right now, there's no law requiring evidence retention in a murder case for the state of Idaho (CBS 2).

Crime scene tape. Red and blue police lights. Law enforcement on scene: All common sights of a murder case. You might assume it's law to preserve what's gathered in these cases, but in the state of Idaho, there's nothing guaranteeing that. Some experts say, Idahoans should have a right to be concerned.

"It is a missed opportunity that could have incredibly grave consequences if governments fail to preserve biological evidence," said Rebecca Brown, director of policy at the Innocence Project.

Right now, the Gem State does not have any laws requiring evidence to be preserved in a murder case. This means legally, it can be destroyed.

Greg Hampikian, Boise State University professor and Idaho Innocence Project director, is considered one of the foremost forensic DNA experts in the United States. He played an instrumental role in the acquittal of American exchange student Amanda Knox. He's also worked on a number of cases here in Idaho. Hampikian says he doesn't believe law enforcement officers here are carelessly throwing away DNA swabs or murder weapons. He says he sees the opposite.

"The cases I've worked on this has not been a major problem," he says. "There's always--they can't keep everything and you wish there was more evidence--but they are holding on. I've looked at evidence in this state that's 20 to 25 years old, and I haven't seen a big problem with what they are doing."

So why then, is there a concern about a lack of a law? The main concern is this: how evidence is handled in these cases, and how long it's retained could be different across different cities in the state.

"It's simply no longer acceptable that there not be uniform standards across the state with how to preserve biological evidence," says Brown. She says not having this law not only harms those who are innocent behind bars, but also law enforcement officers who are trying to solve cold cases.

Brown says laws across the nation are a bit of a mix when it comes to how they preserve evidence. Brown was one of several members of a 2015 national technical working group on biological evidence with the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Institute of Justice.

She says the group---comprised of law enforcement officers, lawyers, scientists and non profit members--came up with multiple recommendations on the best practices to preserve evidence. And while each state law varies, roughly the numbers break down like this:

Idaho is only one of eight states that do not have a law with evidence preservation in a murder case. Seventeen other states have laws, but are considered by the standards of the working group as too restrictive. (Some states for example, allow for a window of destruction, such as after a conviction, or if a defendant plead guilty.) The remaining 25 state have laws that roughly meet these standards.

Brown says states that automatically retain evidence in murder cases permanently, serve its citizens best.

"When there is a viable claim of evidence, and there's no opportunity to test the evidence connected to that case, no body benefits," says Brown. " Not the original victim of the crime, because the wrong person is behind bars, obviously the wrongfully convicted person, their victim and their community is harmed massively, and the public safety is harmed."

And without these laws Hampikian says---there's a possibility of grave consequences.

"If you trust your government to always be right--then you have no worry," he says. " But the fact of the matter is, we've had several thousand exonerations in this country. We've had over 120 people freed from death row, who were innocent. So even when it's taken the most seriously, mistakes are made."

One of these mistakes happened to Maryland man, Kirk Bloodsworth.

"I was just an innocent man in a jail cell, waiting to die," he says. Bloodsworth was found guilty of the murder of a young girl near his home. A murder, that he did not commit.

Sitting in his cell reading, he says he found out about a new form of DNA testing, which he was certain would prove his innocence. However, he says prosecutors told him the evidence in the case was inadvertently destroyed. He says the evidence was later discovered in the judge's chambers. It led to him being freed, and the real killer being charged in the crime. He credits the saved evidence, for saving his life.

"No state, no principality, no government should destroy evidence about a case, especially things like blood evidence or semen samples," he says.

Bloodsworth says Idahoans should be very concerned with the fact that their law doesn't guarantee that this evidence will be preserved.

"If it could happen to me--an honorably discharged marine no criminal record or criminal history-- it can happen to anybody in America," he says. "You got to preserve the evidence Idaho, or it could happen to one of your citizens."

Stay with CBS 2 as we continue to cover this issue. Next, we're talking to members of law enforcement to see their methods of how they preserve evidence.

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